The Red Tree
Caitlin R. Kiernan
H. P. Lovecraft was a writer who managed to overcome his faults (frequently racist overtones and often stiff language) and evoke an atmosphere of dread and despair that turns even the hottest summer day into something dark and chilling. Many writers have written works based on the mythos of Lovecraft, many others have written clever homages to his fiction (see “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar” by Neil Gaiman) but few, if any, manage to capture or even expound upon the atmosphere of horror and fear of the unknown that Lovecraft so handily elucidate. At least that is what I though before having first encountered Caitlin R. Kiernan’s novel Threshold. And while I haven’t followed every bit of fiction she has written still remains the only author who manages to truly evoke those same sensations of dread while at the same time managing to do so in a voice entirely her own. If Threshold only hinted at this fact, then The Red Tree reveals it to be true in the most, dare I say, cyclopean of ways.
In the second section of his essay, “Supernatural Horror In Literature” Lovecraft writes:
“As may naturally be expected of a form so closely connected with primal emotion, the horror-tale is as old as human thought and speech themselves. Cosmic terror appears as an ingredient of the earliest folklore of all races, and is crystallised in the most archaic ballads, chronicles, and sacred writings.” While Lovecraft is here referring more to early Egyptian and Jewish mythology, and quickly veers into racist a couple paragraphs later, I maintain that his initial point remains a salient one and it is a theme that Kiernan uses to great effect in The Red Tree. While the titular oak remains central to the novel’s plot Kiernan manages to includes a sampler of New England folklore and myth that lends to the tale’s grounding in reality. Context is everything and Kiernan’s inclusion of New England history of folklore adds to the depth and breadth of the novel’s impact; lending an air of almost imperceptible inevitability of the horror that unfolds.
That sense of reality, of the truth of Kiernan’s fiction, is extremely important to the impact her writing has. Horror fiction passing itself as something real, as truth, is something that has been used since as early as 1764, Horace Walpole’s proto-horror novel is The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto and can be seen in modern works like The Blair Witch Project, Danielewski’s House of Leaves, or even the ARG campaign used to promote Cloverfield . It should come as no small surprise that Kiernan uses a fictional book, also titled The Red Tree, to frame her story (supported by “real life” evidence on Kiernan’s own website); Kiernan goes so far as to include a short story by the book’s author Sarah Crowe (not a superfluous inclusion, but one important to book’s overall plot). I’ve always been drawn to fictional narratives that pass themselves off as true and, as usual, find myself easily drawn into believing that what I’m reading is something real.
Like her recent short story collection Kiernan manages to explore some rather extreme sexual elements and, while they don’t necessarily play a central role in the novel, are important in their lack of attention. While never described outright Amanda’s photo-shopped images (indeed I can’t recall any explicit descriptions but Kiernan drops enough hints to let the reader conjure their own images, an impressive fact in and of itself) are important because their blase acceptance by our narrator starkly contrasts her own reaction to both her own dreams and the strange events occur as the novel progresses. And, again, while never outright stated in the novel Kiernan plays with the relationship between truth and fiction with the aforementioned short story, “Pony,” that may (or may not) be somehow related to the events which spurred Sarah’s self-imposed New England exile. Indeed as the novel progresses that element of truth becomes rather important and central and Crowe goes so far to remind us that any first person narrator is unreliable. The interlacing of fiction and truth within the narrative is compounded and enhanced by interlacing of fiction and truth as a result of the narrative structure. Perhaps that sounds a bit complex in hindsight but it is something that is only truly apparent one manages to pry themselves away from story and disappears again once one is immersed in the narrative partly because the narrative structure of the novel means we are not only reading the novel but playing the role of reader within the story itself; a fact that I absolutely love.
In the conclusion to his introduction to “Supernatural Horror In Literature” Lovecraft writes:
The one test of the really weird is simply this — whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.
The Red Tree does all of this. Not once in my reading did I blink and suddenly find myself in the real world I was completely and totally sold on my own role in the narrative Kiernan has woven and found it easy to fall prone to oppressive heat of the New England summer yet still be chilled by darkness of the empty space beyond the threshold in the basement. I am glad that I managed to miss bringing this book with me during my vacation to Maine, I’d hate having to explain to my friends my suddenly inability to find no comfort in the plaintive cries of the loons or why the wall of black beyond the cabin’s windows suddenly left me so nervous.
Addendum: Roc needs a serious slap on the wrist for the cover of this book. While my initial heated reaction has somewhat dimished, and the image has some merits, I still think it does little just to the contents held between the pages. Shame on you Roc.